I’ve tried different models to understand birtherism: brain physiology, conspiracy theories, psychology, but there are some characteristics that evade those categories, characteristics more like a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
An MMORPG is an online game presenting a fantasy world in which characters manipulated by human players immerse themselves in a scenario.
The game engine
In online games, there is software that presents the virtual world to players, with location imagery, character interaction, and rules about what happens when the player takes some action. In Birtherism, the game engine is an ad hoc implementation based on the World Wide Web. Because the Web was not designed as a game engine, it is somewhat limited in the kinds of activities players can engage in. There is no rich graphic field of play—it’s a bit more like an older genre, the text adventure. While “chat” is a minor part of modern MMORPGs, it is the central activity of birtherism, and verbal imagery replaces, for the most part, graphics.
In an MMORPG, characters are of some type: elves, thieves, priests, etc., each with the ability to learn skills. Birthers attempt to learn skills: research, reading between the lines, forensic document examination, legal knowledge, image processing, detection, aggressive speech and propaganda.
Of course each player has an avatar, a game image of the virtual player and a character name, often imaginative and sometimes copied from some fictional character, such as Falcon, Mountain Goat, Joe Mannix, butterdezillion, Hermitian, etc. Like MMORPG players, birthers often select images, or “avatars” to represent themselves online.
In each MMORPG, there is some goal to achieve, typically defeating something, reaching some place, obtaining objects and wealth, and gaining power and experience. Birtherism modeled as MMORPG has a clearly defined quest, to get President Obama out of office. To accomplish this, birthers seek power objects that they call “evidence” or proof that President Obama is not eligible to be president. Some birther seek for obscure quotations (real or otherwise) that talk about the importance of blood over place of birth. They collect video clips where people say things that can be interpreted to say Obama wasn’t born in the US. Sometimes they fabricate evidence.
Part of the goal in an MMORPG is to gain experience and experience lets a character do things more easily and to defeat more powerful enemies. This part of the game is the most ineffective for birthers, because they lose every skirmish, and don’t gain any experience points.
In the end, most MMORPG’s have a “boss,” a highly powerful character residing at the end of the game, that has to be defeated. President Obama is that character for birthers.
Hacking and slashing
Typically, MMORPG involves violence, and players do extreme things that they would not do in real life, like killing other characters. We’re seeing an upsurge in verbal violence at Birther Report recently. Birthers talk about taking over the country, holding executions, and torturing opponents.
Spilling over into the real world
MMORPG players generally realize that they are playing a game, while birthers generally do not. In an MMPRPG there are non-player characters (NPCs), characters in the game run by the game engine rather than players. In games, they are merchants or providers of information. In birtherism, they are Internet providers, government agencies, judges and media.
One of the things that prompted me to explore the MMORPG model for birthers (and other right-wing extremists on the Internet) was the massively offline failure of Operation American Spring (OAS). In the game world, 10 million people were supposed to descend on Washington DC and shut down the government until their quest was achieved. Online, there was much activity surrounding OAS, but in the real world, hardly anyone showed up. Of course, in a game, no one expects someone to show up at a location in the real world. In fact, for most birthers, all of their birther activity is wholly online.
The distinction between real world and game becomes blurred when someone in a position of authority, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, does real-world activities towards game objectives. One might even define a major goal of birtherism as breaking outside the game into the real world, making fantasy into reality.
In the game, a player might reasonably expect to achieve a goal that was physically impossible, so long as it is within the parameters of the game engine’s rules. By game logic, birthers should be able to win battles, such as court cases—even though those cases are nonsense in real court. It seems that this difference between MMORPG rules and real world rules causes come confusion and some irritation.
In some sense, the opponents of birthers might be said to be playing the MMORPG. Having just come back from the 2014 Philadelphia Fogbow meetup, I get the impression that anti-birthers are more aware of the “fun” aspect of the online activity than birthers. We also don screen names (e.g. “Dr. Conspiracy”) and select avatars. We also gain experience and skills. The Philadelphia meetup was like a convention of game fans. (Maybe we should hold a “birthercon.”)
In my view, both the birthers and their opponents have not changed the real world very much. Obviously Barack Obama won two elections despite the birthers, and probably not because of the help of anti-birthers. Elections are real-world activities and political candidates are far more skilled at their own game than amateurs like us.